The good news for the Vols is that their offense has jumped from 98th in the country in points per game in 2019 up to 59th this year.
The bad news is that only 77 teams are playing this year instead of 130.
That said, Tennessee really did have a couple of good games against South Carolina and Missouri before running into the defensive buzzsaw that was Georgia and Kentucky. The Kentucky game was particularly bad, as they limited them to only 7 points and a couple of pick-sixes.
Schematically, this is fairly similar to what Alabama saw from Jimbo Fisher’s Texas A&M offense, but without a converted wide receiver playing running back and causing mismatches down the field. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney has been at Arkansas and Georgia in the last 6 years, and the SEC influence in his play calling shows. The entire offense runs off of the inside zone run, and as long it keeps getting 3-4 yards, Chaney is going to keep calling it without mercy.
They will mix in the occasional split zone to bring a TE across the formation or an inverted veer to get outside the tackles, but they aren’t extremely common.
Passing-wise, there’s some play action, but mostly consists of straight 1-step drops out of shotgun and firing a quick out, curl, slant, or a checkdown to the running back on a middle curl. They’ll also mix in the occasional sideline fade to keep defensive backs from cheating up too much.
Senior QB Jarrett Guarantano has been starting for most of a decade, and has been frustratingly below average with flashes of brilliance his entire career (without ever really improving the ratio). As a senior, he’s clearly made efforts to not take off scrambling as often as he did early in his career and is more than happy to toss the little check down throws to his running backs across the middle all game long.
Overall, though, averaging less than 200 yards per game on only 61% passing with 3 interceptions to 4 touchdowns isn’t going to survive long in SEC football. Or modern college football in general for that matter.
Receivers Josh Palmer and Brandon Johnson have been solid enough on the outside. Both are bigger guys with good speed, and they have 9 years of experience with 150 total collegiate catches between them. The Vols also now have Velus Jones, Jr. to watch out for. The former USC Trojan was a 3-year starter as a kick return specialist out on the West Coast, and Tennessee is now getting him involved in the receiving game as well, particularly on screen passes.
Ultimately, though, this offense is funnelled through running backs Eric Gray and Ty Chandler. Both are short, stocky backs with great agility, short area explosiveness, and balance, and they substitute in and out rather interchangeably. Neither are known for being a threat to take a run to the house, but they gobble up 5 yards at a time over and over and over and over all game long. The two have combined for 110 attempts and a shade under 550 rushing yards through four games, and have 3300 career yards between them.
For Alabama, this is another breath of fresh air after the A&M and Ole Miss games, as Tennessee doesn’t have a tight end that’s very involved in the passing game, and they almost never attempt seams down the center of the field— two areas that have given Alabama’s defense fits. Josh Jobe and Patrick Surtain II should be more than up to the task of sitting on the quick out routes, and don’t be surprised if one of the two get their first interception this game.
On the other hand, Alabama’s defensive front struggled some with Georgia’s interior running game despite there being very little deception involved, so wrangling down Tennessee’s two slippery backs all game long is going to turn into some frustrating first downs on broken tackles. And even though their running backs have mostly just been involved in the passing game with checkdown routes, any competent OC will absolutely look at what Alabama’s defense has done thus far and send those running backs out on some deeper routes.
It will be a good test for the Crimson Tide defenders to really work on shoring up those weaknesses while still not having too much to worry about in terms of deep shots and fast scoring.
I think the Vols get a few sustained drives that drive Alabama fans mad, but it results in only two touchdowns and a field goal or two. 17-20 points.